Fiction / Desiree Dighton
:: Accidental Life ::
Treading water. That’s how I imagine her, the image I have in my mind. At that age in the middle of the lake in the dark, she could be anyone. But, still. Laura treads water, her legs in a joyful nervous dance, and her left ankle begins to ache. She has to rest. She has to be still. And so she dips just under the water, into the aftermath of her kicking, the slowly spreading ripples of water, a few bubbles tickling her face.
It’s a game, this going underwater, a flirt with drowning, disappearing, frightening herself. It’s a game she can win at any time, if coming to the surface can be considered a win. All she has to do is push her arms down against the water and then up again and then down. Her body enveloped in feathery plumes. She propels herself all the way down to the bottom of the lake, and her feet sink in the silt bottom, a mud cloud engulfing her legs until her toes reach the firm clay underneath. All this happens too quickly to count down the seconds, but to her, under the water, it seems like a long time. She bends against the firm bottom, familiar to her now. Pushes hard with her legs, springs back up. The usually velvet touch of the water against her skin feels nearly solid against her. She breaks through the surface almost silently and inhales, her breath a small tin-like sound in the dark. She treads again and wipes water out of one eye and then the next. Only a few feet away, a human shape, not more than a shadow, bobs quietly in the dark. She wonders if anyone is there at all, if it’s just a trick, her eyes trying to adjust and see something, anything at all in the night.
The pale form of a hand grabs for the ankle or her bare foot—her skin a mystical shade of green, almost glowing on its own, despite the lack of light—the hand grasping and missing. She kicks the water into yellow swirls, her legs so close to the surface that the moon illuminates her skin in the watery pale green light. Her body slippery, so that his hand can’t quite grasp her, until it does, and they are both at once aware of their solid bodies in the water. His flesh and muscle cause the water to lap against her and then to still. Because they are both strong swimmers, they can hold on to each other and tread water at once. She takes in a mouthful of water but stops herself before she chokes. His hand grazes beneath her leg and winds it around his waist like a rope. She leans her head back to rest in the water and the white ovals of their faces tilt upwards and catch the moonlight.
Maybe you would’ve seen only the water’s gentle ripples and never felt what must have been the hot, wet breath escaping from their mouths. You won’t ever know her, or even him. I never met her, not properly, although I’ve come to know her as well as my own skin, or yours, for that matter. And him, I wouldn’t claim to know him, not truly. But I imagine that one day you’ll want some sort of explanation. And I look out over this lake, a different one altogether, one that even in the summer can seem cold in its endlessness, but I also think there’s beauty and a strange peace of mind in never being able to see all the way to the other side, an endlessness that allows there to be no conclusion, no truth you cannot bring yourself to love. Mornings, I’ve watched the sun rise and glint on the surface before it takes over the sky, showing all too much of everything that’s out there—the honking and yelling and speeding and cursing—but that moment before, when it’s no longer night but not yet day, when all I can see is that great plain of water, it is then that I imagine I can see her most clearly, bobbing there on the surface, a tiny dot, a buoy that began us both.
Sometimes, if I close my eyes at that moment, I imagine I can feel her life coursing through my body. Maybe you feel it too. Maybe I don’t have to tell you her story. But this is one of those lies we tell ourselves to avoid what we know. She was your beginning, and I will try to explain how that can be. Because, after all, we have a right to know how we began.
The violas in front of the house grew low to the ground, and Laura couldn’t pull them unless she knelt down in the dirt. She’d get twenty dollars if she pulled the crisp stems out and replaced them with heartier pansies.
Laura’s grandma told her how to pull the dead plants and the nearly dead ones, flowers that looked like they wouldn’t make it another month. Laura didn’t understand why that had to be done right now, but she felt like it had something to do with her mother coming over later. She stood in the yard at the edge of the flowerbed and looked around to see if any of the neighbors were watching, if anyone she knew happened to be walking around, or driving by on the road in front of the house. When she was satisfied, she knelt down to where she’d set her radio and hit play on the cassette player.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Heath Graham come outside and walk down the driveway next door to wash an old Corvette. She didn’t know the year, but it was the sparkly royal blue of bowling balls and roller skate wheels. Heath’s father followed him out the door and began to wax a Harley Davidson, buffing the custom paint job, some kind of pink swirly writing Laura couldn’t quite make out but guessed said Heath’s dad’s name. Heath was sixteen, only two years older than Laura, but he had his drivers’ license, and she didn’t.
Her locker was in the freshman hallway at school, and his was in the one for juniors. Laura liked to watch him hang up his bag in his locker, the way his arm muscles changed as he performed each movement, the simple act of getting his books together something altogether different when his hands did it. She especially liked the way his mouth fell open a little when he bowed his head to look for the right textbook.
Now, standing there just across the yard, she also liked to watch his muscles doing these things she’d not seen him do before now, like spraying the car down with the garden hose. She especially liked the skin on his arm just below the line of his short shirtsleeve, the way the muscle stood out, but there was a hollow too. The setting sun shone hard and bright off the metal, so bright she had to squint to see this hollow very well, but his skin shone too, which made it a little easier. His arms looked nearly hairless, like a boy’s, but his shoulders seemed broader and stronger and somehow more real to her than any other shoulders in the world. She’d never really understood or seen shoulders, she felt, until she’d started noticing his. She studied the way they changed shape as he soaped the car with a large yellow sponge and dried it with a white cloth she’d heard him call a shammy. He opened a flat can with another towel, and with a circular motion of his cupped fingers lifted out a glob of shiny car wax. She could smell its gasoline odor from her yard. She breathed in deeper to see if she could fill her body with it, and that’s when he glanced up and saw her there on her knees.
She tried to quickly look away, change her own parted lips into an expression of disinterest, but knew she wasn’t successful, so she decided to wave, but then regretted that too. She didn’t want him to think she’d been watching. She dropped her hand as quickly as she’d raised it, knelt down, and picked up another crate of the flowers her grandmother had left near the flowerbed. When she dared look up again, there was his blonde hair, all lit up as he walked out from the shade of the carport, as though he were walking toward her, but she knew that he couldn’t be. He’d never spoken to her, not really. She didn’t know why he was home right now at all, and she wished she didn’t have to be on her knees in the dirt. Why wasn’t he at football practice or maybe lifting? She pictured him down in the weight room at school with his friends so she wouldn’t have to think about him being next door, or maybe walking toward her right now. It was difficult to picture because she’d only ever been inside the high school gymnasium, but she knew there was also a weight room beneath the gym. She made herself imagine Heath and the other football players down there, laughing, reclined on slick red weight benches, lifting weights in rhythm to songs on the radio.
When she glanced up again, Heath was halfway across the yard, tucking the shammy into his front jeans pocket. When he saw her eyes, he lowered his head, as though he were embarrassed, but she didn’t think he was. She was surprised he’d walk over to talk to her at all, but especially with his dad right there. She couldn’t believe he’d even noticed her down there in the dirt. She’d half-hoped he hadn’t and half-hoped he’d do just what he was doing now. She could see the skin on the side of his neck as he looked away. She didn’t think she’d ever seen it from this angle before, and the shape of it, the strain and tightness of his skin just there, she could almost feel it. He’d never seemed shy before, not on all those days after school let out, when Laura and her friends would stand around and pretend like they weren’t waiting near the gymnasium for the older boys to get out of football practice at four thirty. Sometimes, when he’d walk by, she would will him to look at her, but he never did. She’d be lounging on the trunk of someone’s car, pretending to wait for her mother to pick her up. She’d dangle her legs over the edge of the trunk, kicking slightly, as though she were bored, and once the back of her black ballet flat slid from one heel, the shoe catching and suspending off her big toe, her nails painted a melon shade of pink, but it didn’t fall all the way off, so she’d never know if he would have bent to pick it up for her and smile before placing it back on her foot.
It was only a few days ago when Heath and his friends had stopped in the parking lot on their way to the football field. They were standing just a few feet away from her, joking around, talking about what they were going to do later. This was when her shoe slipped and hung from her toe, and she tried to will it to fall onto the gravel, to see if Heath would break away from his friends to pick it up and hand it to her. He met her eyes for a split second, but then he’d turned away to talk to her friend Shannon, who’d been late getting out of detention. They glanced over at her as they talked, walked over toward where she sat with the others on the hood of a car. His eyes meeting her eyes, even for a fraction of a second, made her chest fill up. She needed to jump down from the trunk and move, walk around, dance, anything.
She heard him say something about the football game on Tuesday night and then he laughed at something Shannon said. When he asked if they were going to the party afterward, he looked at Shannon, not at Laura. He could probably tell how desperately she wanted to go, maybe even knew how much she liked him, and he wasn’t going to ask her.
That night, when her grandmother and brothers had gone to sleep, Laura did climb down from her bedroom window and cross the driveway to the Grahams’s, where Shannon and Heath’s friends waited in his car. They waited there instead of in her driveway so her grandmother wouldn’t wake to the sound of a car pulling in and the engine idling and wonder who could be sitting in a car outside at midnight. Heath didn’t speak to her at the party. Every minute, she knew where he was standing, no matter how far across the room, and knew who he was talking to instead of her. When he drove them all home, she sat behind him, which wasn’t the greatest, but at least she could study his hairline, something she’d never had the opportunity to do, and the back of his earlobes, the way his face looked different when viewed from the side and from behind. When he caught her looking at him in the side mirror, she looked away. She refocused instead on his arm, which she could clearly see on the armrest. She imagined that same arm resting across her back, maybe even pulling her toward him. She’d never kissed a boy, not really, and she’d certainly never been in bed with one, but she liked to think how it would be with Heath. His skin with the muscles and bones she’d studied so thoroughly, his tan arm with a few scars she’d memorized, one in the shape of a fish hook midway between his wrist and elbow, another made of small circles like an insignia had been burned into his flesh and faded. She imagined he got the fish-hook scar from snagging his arm on barbed wire, working in the fields over the summers with his friends. The burn? The burn he’d gotten as a child when his dad took him to work at the power plant and he’d accidentally backed into some equipment, the shape of a valve burning a circle in his flesh that his father cooled with an ice cube.
She loved the sound of his voice in the car, the private quality of it, different than when she’d heard him talk in the hallways at school. When they pulled slowly into the Grahams’s driveway, everyone just opened their car doors and got out like no big deal, but she hadn’t wanted the car to stop.
Shannon was giggling and falling out of her sandals, so the boys followed them across the driveway and the lawn to Laura’s grandmother’s house. Shannon stopped under the porch roof and said, “Someone’s going to have to boost us into Laura’s room.”
Heath and Tim looked up to where Shannon gestured, which was under Laura’s grandma’s window, and she grabbed Shannon by the sleeve and led her away to the other side of the house where her bedroom window was, on the second story, just over another side porch.
They all stood there for a moment, looked up, and evaluated the height. Laura hadn’t thought about how she’d get back in, only how she’d get out. Shannon began to hiccup.
“Cover your mouth,” Laura said.
Shannon clapped her hands to her mouth, which made her stumble and sit down in the grass, hiccupping even louder.
In between hiccups, locusts buzzed. There was the faint sound of cars breathing by on the highway a mile or so away. Heath stood facing her. She couldn’t see his expression. The streetlight wasn’t shining quite right. She could only make out the outline of his features in the dark. She wanted to store it away in her mind, the closeness of him in the dark, the way she could almost feel the shape of his body in the air between them. Even though it was dark, she felt that something had changed between them, something that might make the way things were at school different, but she wasn’t sure if it would make them better, or if she’d feel ashamed every time they passed each other. Or was he waiting for her to say it was all right to boost her up?
Heath took a few steps toward her, and she felt the pressure of his closeness in the air. She thought she could even feel his breath against her face, but she couldn’t be sure if it was his breath or just an especially soft breeze.
Tim said, “Heath, you better lift Laura. This one’s too drunk.”
Heath didn’t laugh, but she could feel a laugh wanting to come out of him. He bent over and clasped his hands together in front of her knees.
“This is your room, right? I don’t want to get caught boosting you in the wrong window.” This was the first thing he’d said to her, and she was so stunned by his voice, words meant for her, that she couldn’t say anything in response, so she kicked her shoes off instead. She placed her hand on Heath’s shoulder. There was his shoulder just under her hand, just the T-shirt between them. She made herself breathe. She placed her bare foot in his palm. His hand was warm, and she felt the push of him as he thrust upward, and she was suddenly standing in his hands shoulder high, high enough she could grab the gutter around the porch and then the porch roof itself. She’d still have to push herself up with all her strength if she was going to wriggle onto the roof on her belly. She thought she could do it, but she wasn’t quite sure. Her chest tightened, and the swirly pleasure she’d felt from being this close clinched into fear. What if she couldn’t do it? She didn’t want her arms to shake in front of Heath. She didn’t want to not be able to pull herself up.
Both her feet were in his hands now, and his arms waved a little under her weight. Her legs swayed and then rested steady against his chest. She could feel the softness of his face and the bristles of a little facial hair brushing against her thighs. She hadn’t known he had facial hair. It must have been invisible, just like the hair on his arms. “Can you stand on my shoulders?” he asked. It was a simple thing to do, of course, but she held still and let herself feel his skin against hers for a moment. Then she stepped onto his shoulders and knew she had to push now or she’d never get up. She pushed as hard as she could, until she felt the gravel scrape of the roof against her stomach and Heath’s warm hands gone from her feet.
“I’m up,” she said.
She peered over the roof and saw the moon on his skin. There was the hint of a smile, a little crooked and a little flirty, she was almost sure. When she met his eyes, something wriggled around inside of her, something that felt like herself, but not at all like the self she’d felt any other time before.
It was the same feeling she had now watching him as he came over to where she knelt in the yard. She didn’t know what was coming, but she knew that she wanted him to keep walking toward her.
I never saw Laura in person. A few school photos of a blond, fourteen-year-old girl, the faintest hint of the woman she might have become in the slant of her eyes, the slight, closed-lip smile. I wondered what she was hiding, or if she was just unwilling to expose her teeth, some flaw, real or imagined, behind those closed lips. She was pretty, even with her over-styled ‘80s hair, but not stunning, at least not yet, too young to know how to arrange herself into someone’s ideal. In the picture, she wears a red mock turtleneck, because she thought it sophisticated, or maybe someone else had pressured her to wear it for this one day.
I wasn’t anywhere near Carrolton the year she disappeared, although we would have been about the same age. I was a little older, but not much, shopping for my first college formal the spring she disappeared. It’s hard for me to imagine a time before Laura’s story seemed to run in parallel to my own, a time before I ever knew she existed. I came to feel like her story had happened to me, or at least to someone I loved almost as much as myself. Whatever happened to us both made me believe I could imagine what it felt like to have a life and what it must have felt like to lose it. Imagining that kind of loss came too swiftly and easily, washing me away from myself. Only now do I know that losses like hers are felt far more slowly and more deeply than I was capable of then. The way I imagined her disappearance, the reasons for it, I realize now, were all my own ideas, even when I believed they were based on some truth I’d learned. It’s amazing how easily we can think we see clearly what others haven’t been able to see, and then how quickly and harshly we can be disabused. All these explanations were nevertheless my way of making sense of the choices people made, especially those I’d come to know and love. Imagining Laura—what happened to her, where she was, what had caused it all—was some strange will on my own part to feel loss, to lose myself. Call it self-destruction if you want.
Laura was never a person to me, not really. She was always a ghost, a manifestation of my yearning, of all our yearnings, the kind of sudden slippage of my life passing over where hers once had been. Thinking about Laura’s absence became part of what it meant to be me. I began to think of us as the same person. The more I tried to carve out my own life, the more what had been her life intruded into mine. It was as if her story seeped slowly into my heart and filled it, until there wasn’t room for me to love anyone that had not been loved by her first. It’s odd how similar grief and desire can be, the similarity of the pain, the ache to touch the body of someone you loved and to be touched and seen and smelled and tasted by them, not so different from the neverending desire, in grief, to clasp the body we’ve lost.
Maybe somewhere in the world humans had evolved beyond the expectation that a thirty-five-year-old woman should be “settled.” If there was such a place, I hadn’t been there. Even in cosmopolitan Chicago, people were the same; they were just quieter about it. Maybe I moved to Carrolton because Chicago was filled with people I knew, and I couldn’t stand the inquiring looks from my friends and family, the awkward dinner conversations. For a long time, I felt the beginning of my new life beating its wings around inside my brain, an intermittent thump that told me I needed to get out. I wanted to vanish. The fluttering of desire and grief pushing against my chest, wanting to escape out my toes, my fingertips, my tongue—this energy would compel me out of the city, cause me to leave my family and friends in Chicago and not care if I talked to anyone I used to know ever again. When I finally did leave for the country, it wasn’t like it is nowadays, where farming is almost chic. Nowadays, if you announce that you intend to raise goats, people take it as a noble attempt to separate yourself from corporate greed and materialism. They call you a hipster, which is at least half a compliment. No, when I decided to begin a farm in the country, I wasn’t joining a trend. I simply wanted to disappear. But I knew I still needed to eat. Choices that aren’t really choices at all. A willful disappearance.
I made my announcement to my family at their house in the suburbs on the day after Thanksgiving. They didn’t say much, but their astonished looks made it clear that I might as well have announced I was joining a cult. They didn’t try to stop me. My parents are kind people, really they are, and I love them, but their proximity always made me feel confined to being what they’d imagined, or at least what they imagined was good for me, and I wanted to shed any ties to people who thought they knew what was good for me.
When I left Chicago, I said my goodbyes to a few friends and former employers, who no doubt were sure I’d be back. They believed my move was destined to be a brief, failed foray. The whole thing—the relocation, the rural life—some indication of an acute but, they hoped, impermanent mental illness. I never mentioned my plans to my boyfriend Ryan. I was pretty sure his reaction would not be what I hoped.
Ryan and I hadn’t been together long. It’s unfair for me to have wanted him to ask me to stay. But I didn’t know anything then, so I thought the feelings we had for each other could be permanent, or at least semi-permanent. By the time I moved, it had only been a few months since the first night we spent together in his apartment. Our lovemaking didn’t go much more than skin deep, at least for him, which isn’t the same as saying I didn’t try to make the sex mind-blowing, the kind of sex that would serve as a gauge somehow, an indicator of whether we had a deep and lasting bond. Maybe I should’ve known better, but I thought good consistent sex might suddenly switch into love, marriage, and eventually family. I know now that what I felt for him was too distant and fuzzy to be love. He probably wasn’t in love with me, but I certainly didn’t stop trying to make it so.
That first night, I was unknowingly ridiculous. I wore clothing that tried far too hard, a black lace garter belt and real silk stockings under the beige slacks I wore to the bank where we both worked. We’d been casually flirting and drinking after work for a few weeks, and I was impatient to make our relationship official. Trying to scratch my legs under my desk at dinner, digging down beneath the layers of slacks and nylons, should have been a pretty big tell that this was my first attempt at a lingerie-clad seduction. When Ryan said he was going to walk home from the bar, I invited myself along, a mere twelve blocks in heels, making up some story about how I needed to take the El stop near his apartment anyway. In front of his building, I dawdled under a lamppost until I could muster up the courage to ask for a tour of his place. This move was as good as telling him he could sleep with me. I knew this before I said it, knew it with every step I took as I followed him the two flights up to his apartment. It wasn’t him I wanted, at least not specifically. It was that idea of having a “him” or an “us” or a something besides a “me.” Me. Such a lonely, juvenile sound to the word. Him hums a sexy tune. Himmmm, I sang in my head and then us. So grown up. Strong. Sturdy.
He immediately set about making a couple of drinks, as if we needed more, and I slouched on the counter, tilting my hips toward him like a magnet. When he still didn’t touch me, I stumbled the short distance to kiss him, an awkward wrap-around style kiss, trying to meet his lips with mine as he continued to mix gin and tonics. After that, I excused myself, closed the bathroom door, unbuttoned my trousers and slipped them down over my hips, unbuttoned my blouse. There they were: the garter belt, the stockings, and the nipples that had been trying their best all day to escape a demi-cup bustier. In the mirror on the back of the closed door, I tried to see myself as he might, as I wanted him to, as a page ripped from a men’s magazine, the snags from my earlier scratching barely noticeable in the dim light. When I emerged from the bathroom, I’m not sure which one of us was more stunned about what I’d done: gone from conservative banking colleague to stocking-clad seductress. Ryan stood up but didn’t take a step toward me. I turned around in a little circle, as though I were auditioning in a dirty beauty pageant.
“Talia?” he asked, eventually.
“Don’t worry about all the hooks,” I said. “I can help you take it off.” But I didn’t take it all off, not even when he finally moved toward me and the warmth of his open hand against my hip finally allowed the breath back into my body. I needed some of that costume to make me into the kind of woman he would want to put his hands all over. I don’t know if it changed the way he thought about me, but I’ve yet to meet a man who will turn down a woman blatantly offering herself up in his kitchen.
After that, the official feeling I wanted didn’t seem to arrive, but things did change between us. Not so you’d notice from the outside, really, but it did feel a little more like “Ryan and I” who began to go to Gibsons for happy hour with Jane and Alec from work. We’d become two pairs. What kind of pair wasn’t yet clear, but we were officially not just a group.
Gibsons was one of those restaurants that hadn’t redecorated since the seventies. I’m talking wood paneling and red leather booths. A place where staying stuck was a matter of principle. Paneled walls cluttered with framed photos of Chicago’s most powerful. At least, they were powerful once upon a time. Wannabes still filled up the place any night of the week, ogling themselves in the lacquered maple finish of the bar. We were there too, except on weekends, when tourists lowered the prestige of the place. Instead, we’d stumble around the Gold Coast from the Hunt Club to late nights in the Back Room to hungover and recuperating a few hours after brunch on Sundays only to find ourselves back at Gibsons every Tuesday for late lunch meetings that turned into early happy hour drinks. When I finally left Chicago, Ryan and I were together like this five or six nights a week.
I threw myself into sex as though each thrust were a hurdle, pulling out every sex act I’d ever read about in some women’s magazine. Our lovemaking sessions extended until the wee hours of the morning, probably at least partly due to Ryan’s drinking, but also because I wanted sex with me to make Ryan believe our alarm clocks would never ring. I wanted it to get so good that he’d forget he had a job, or not care if he lost it. Nevermind that all these hours of pelvic contact made morning showers burn and wooden chairs untenable. Winning his love, or at least his desire for me over all other things, felt, if not fulfilling, at least promising, as though it held the potential for something that might one day feel good.
Besides the convenience of the circumstances—we were working in the same office, both single, close in age and similarly attractive—I couldn’t tell you precisely what drew us together. Our passion for one another was almost abstract—it seemed disconnected from who we really were. Our true selves, if we even knew them, we kept hidden from one another. I didn’t know who I was, not really, but I made it my goal to know him. I knew that he folded his socks instead of balling them up. I knew he took baths. I knew he secretly believed in God. I knew the pattern of freckles above his left nipple. Maybe our inability to know each other more deeply had something to do with having the kind of jobs we had, the single-minded number crunching. Perhaps, despite our best intentions, we had grown quite used to creating nothing significant or personal with all of our goal-focused, panting energy.
And then a few months after we began this semi-official relationship, in the absence of any true feeling I could identify, I made the decision that he was the one for me. But I needed some kind of sign. I needed something official. I explained to myself that he was as good or better than anyone else I was likely to meet, so, I thought, the one might as well be him.
At that moment, I was lying next to Ryan on his queen-size bed, and, for this first time, I noticed the puffy white comforter, how the bedspread matched the sheets and pillowcases, not just in color, but also in style, as though they’d been bought as a set. I studied more closely the oak bed frame, a rather grandmotherly looking headboard, not hip at all, more on the sad side. The bed had a dust ruffle. This bed I had been fucking him on for months—how had I never looked at it before? How had I never seen it for what it was? It had none of the posh pretention of Ryan’s designer suits, his watches, or his discerning taste in food. I looked around at the rest of his room: the flouncy white cotton curtains on his windows, not exactly classic. Not ugly, either, but almost. You could definitely call them feminine. Each window was topped with a white valance, something that might have been in style ten years ago, unashamed of its dated charm.
Perhaps his mother had decorated his room. This is what I thought, but I decided that whether he had chosen each item personally or whether he’d allowed his mother to decorate for him—a woman who was a complete and now nagging mystery to me, but a woman who seemed to have been at least somewhat present during every naked moment we’d shared for the past few months—this décor was the sign I’d been looking for. I knew this man lying next to me. I knew the taste he secretly favored, or I knew his mother’s tastes. Either one seemed to me then like an intimate discovery far beyond what I’d found exploring his nipples.
Those ugly curtains were the first truly positive quality I’d noticed about him, and nothing I would have ever been privy to at work or during one of our bar chats. I had discovered a truth: either he was close to his mother, or he secretly wanted to be a grown-up with a wife instead of a mother.
He turned over on his pillow, opened his eyes, and blinked several times to wake himself up, one of those uncontrived, early morning smiles on his face. For the briefest of moment, when I looked into his eyes, I thought I saw our future. But a few seconds later, Ryan closed his eyes and fell back asleep, his mouth gradually sliding open, his alcohol-twinged morning breath hovering over us. I squeezed my eyes shut and imagined him a bit older, a bit thicker. We had a son, perhaps, another on the way. I would keep him from being the kind of man who’d continue to go to Gibsons without me, who would flirt and eventually sleep with the bartender. I waved the scent of whiskey away and let my hand rest on Ryan’s chest. His body was smoother than any other man I’d touched. I can still picture the two of us, almost childlike, innocent, really, cocooned in white cotton flounce. I looked at his face, willing him to open his eyes and look back at me, to say something, anything that could mean something. When, still sleeping, he slid his arm from under my pillow and placed his hand on top of my head, a touch gentler and warmer than he ever managed consciously, I knew this was my sign. That touch radiated dependability and deep love for me, sentiments he kept hidden most of the time, true, perhaps even from himself, but incontrovertibly there nonetheless.
I remember that morning vividly, like you do when it’s your last, even though it wasn’t ours. I think it was a few days later, back in bed at his apartment after a particularly heavy night of drinking, when, naked and poised above me, he asked, “Is it okay?” He spoke softly; his face over mine was undeniably attractive, but slightly swollen from the heat and the alcohol.
Here was my thinking: because he had asked, this told me how much he wanted it. “It” being “us,” and “us” in the largest sense you can imagine: “us” in the future-perfect, plural form.
“Is it safe?” he moaned.
I’d let my prescription run out the month before. I just hadn’t gotten around to filling it. Maybe I was depressed, maybe I wanted it to happen, but it was subconscious, or nearly subconscious. I honestly don’t think I was thinking about it consciously, but I wasn’t totally unaware of the need to get it filled. Lying there, his body hovering and poised on the brink, below him I was caught up in an entirely different firestorm of nerves begging for release. I hadn’t been monitoring my cycle behind his back, waiting for a vulnerable moment, and in truth I couldn’t guess which day or hour was most dangerous/advantageous for my body. I hesitated for only a moment, the white valence over the window wavering from the breeze of the furnace, before nodding and pushing my hips firmly into his. This one moment in which I couldn’t find my usual logic; my mind, usually so quick and sharp, in some state of delusion when Ryan asked, is it okay? It had never been in my character before to let fate take its course. I took hold of the slippery wooden headboard. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, yes, yes.”
From the writer
:: Account ::
“Accidental Life”—excerpted from my novel-in-progress—began by thinking of a friend whose wife had just left him, their child, and her older children, a young woman who seemed to fit the mold of housewife/mother so well, yet who also seemed to easily shrug off that life and exit the lives of those who loved her most. But, of course, the idea of her never left my friend or her children—or me, for that matter. That moment connected the central themes that saturate nearly everything I’ve ever written: the fuzzy, permeable boundaries between one life and another, between one temporal space and another. Laura’s story is also Talia’s story, and vice versa. One life can hold and bleed into another, and that merging creates another story, and if that idea is so, then individual stories can no longer be understood in isolation, and it becomes less clear who the words “I” and “you” and “she” describe.
It’s that play with pronouns that allows for story’s transmutability in Accidental Life; it is a form that I think narratively captures the impulse to let our bodies slip into another’s skin, whether that skin is your friend’s or a character’s. That knowledge we covet in another’s lived experience, of course, makes us feel less alone. In this excerpt, Talia is very much feeling her own isolation and at the same time she’s pinned inside a busy city environment. The rest of the book concerns her search for self, a search that takes her out of her life and into Laura’s, a young woman who disappeared but never quite left the consciousness of her town or the people who loved her.
Desiree Dighton’s fiction has been a contest finalist at Glimmer Train and American Short Fiction. She is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine and received her MFA from Southern Illinois University. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.